Public schools, unlikely friendships and civic connections

Our trash wasn’t picked up one recent Thursday. I noticed when I got home that night from a PTA meeting. It wasn’t a holiday week, so I wondered if the truck had missed our cul de sac — it had happened before.

It wasn’t until later, getting ready for bed, when my husband said he’d seen on the neighborhood list-serv that the trash wasn’t getting picked up in the city so that workers could go to the funeral of one of their own. It didn’t take long for me to put the pieces together. The memorial service must be for Mr. Alonzo Lloyd.

A couple of days before, my 15–year-old daughter Georgia had seen the news on Instagram. Her former classmate Jaylen’s dad had died in his sleep. It was a shock.

I only knew Mr. Lloyd as “Peanut,” though there was nothing small about him. He was big and built and had the personality to match his physique — gracious and strong, with a powerful presence. Our paths crossed frequently in Mrs. Bumgardner’s class at our children’s elementary school. We both showed up as often as we could.

It wasn’t just our children who were educated in Mrs. Bumgardner’s class. We parents learned, too. We were taught about race, class, ethnicity, gender. It was Peanut who told me one day that he wasn’t buying into the idea that he was supposed to feel intimidated by white people like me.

While I had certainly thought of some other white people as intimidating, I had never before seen myself as part of a larger picture of whiteness, regardless of how unique I feel I am. Peanut’s candor led me to feel safe to say I wasn’t buying into the idea that I was supposed to be afraid of big black men like him. We both had been fed lies we had the opportunity to unravel because we got to know each other a bit. In showing up week after week in Mrs. Bumgardner’s class, proximity led us from abstract ideas about each other to friendship and mutual respect.

It was Peanut who helped me understand my first “Black Family Reunion” which is what he called the end-of-the-year class picnic across the street at the city park. It was a little wild, crazy and loud for my comfort zone — unlike the many “White Family Reunions” I had attended over the years. But it was really fun and the kids had a great, great time they will never forget.

The last time I saw him, I was walking downtown and he stopped his truck when he saw me. “Hey there,” he called out from high above in the driver’s seat. “How’s it going? How’s Georgia?” I yelled back up at him, “Great to see you! How’s Jaylen?” As always, he towered above me.

We had shared something together around our dearest loves: our children. All the kids in that class, and many of the parents too, were knit together. Black, white, Latino, what my daughter called “multiculti,” we brought with us our cultural, racial, economic understanding of life. But because of our time together, we were something more than each family alone: we were Mrs. Bumgardner’s class. We were the diversity that makes our city, our nation and our world so interesting, challenging, vibrant and alive.

Our public schools are in a tough spot these days. Undervalued, under attack, under-resourced. Our teachers and children live with excessive testing, sorting, evaluation, relentless reform, labels of failing, shrinking enrollments, underpaid teachers and administrators. There have been times when I as a parent have been utterly frustrated by these challenging conditions. I have even been known to fantasize about other options.

But then I step back and take the long view.

While I wish for and advocate for public schools to get the funding and respect they deserve, nonetheless I wouldn’t change my family’s experiences in diverse public schools for anything. The real relationships we’ve developed with people different from us have enriched our lives and our understanding many, many times over. And in my best moments, I believe our presence has enriched others’ lives too.

R.I.P. Alonzo “Peanut” Lloyd.

You will never be forgotten by those who knew you. And to Jaylen — your Dad loved you something fierce.

Maggie Ellis Chotas is an educator, writer and leadership coach with The Mulberry Partners, LLC. She’s the mother of two children in Durham Public Schools.